Shepherd of Israel -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (2 Samuel 5)
2 Samuel 5:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
5 Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2 For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” 3 So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. 5 At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
6 The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7 Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. 8 David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” 9 David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. 10 And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.
The story we read in 2 Samuel tells of the reign of David, Israel’s second and perhaps greatest king. A millennium later, when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, he was hailed the son of David, the assumption being that he would restore the glories of David’s kingdom. The question for any preacher who approaches a passage like this, is how will it preach? What message besides the historical (of course using that term for an ancient text carries its own baggage) does the passage offer?
To get to the contemporary question, we must address the original story, the one we find present in 2 Samuel. When last we met David in 2 Samuel 1, he was at Ziklag. Having received news of the death of Saul and Jonathan, he composed a song of lament. The stage was set for him to become Saul’s successor, but remember this is a federation of tribes. David may have a power base but is he ready to take over the whole nation? In chapter 2, David is made king of Judah, his own tribe. He sets up his capital at Hebron, but he only reigns over part of the tribal federation. It is only here in chapter 5 that David can consolidate his power. There at Hebron, where he had reigned for seven years as king of Judah, the representatives of the rest of the tribes of Israel come to David and ask that he be their king as well, reminding him that they are ultimately the same family. He agrees, and they crown him as the king of the entire nation of Israel. Now he is king of Judah and Israel. If we remember that this was written after the fall of the two kingdoms, which for most of their existence were separated into two kingdoms, this makes sense to speak this way.
David might be king of all the tribes, but his capital was linked to Judah. Maybe he should think about getting a different capital, one that isn’t connected with any of the tribes. Why not the citadel of Zion, which belonged to the Jebusites? While I have included the complete text running from verse 1-10, the creators of the lectionary omit verses 6-8, which describe David’s capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites. It would be nice to think that David moved from Hebron, his original capital, into an unoccupied stronghold. But such is not the case. Warfare in the ancient world often led to the slaughter of the defeated, so imagine David doing just that. Yes, David was a king with blood on his hands. We prefer, most likely, to think of him in terms of the shepherd boy but remember that he felled Goliath and many others. You might think of David as a warlord who happened to rise to the top of the heap. I know that doesn’t make David sound like a man after God’s heart, but maybe a warrior could be a man after God’s heart. When the people in Jerusalem in the first century CE hailed Jesus as the son of David, they were hoping for a warrior. He might be the prince of peace, but peace comes through strength, or so we’ve been told.
One of the things that confounds modern readers of the bible is the violence that is present found in its pages. The lectionary creators do their best to avoid much of the blood and guts of the Bible, but maybe we should face the facts that these texts emerged out of a violent world. Then again, we live in a violent world. Why would we expect the ancient world to be any different? As we read Scripture we find passages that reflect the human aggression, sometimes attributing such attitudes to God. For a nation that was at the crossroads where empires often clashed, is it any surprise that the people of Israel would ask God to bless their attempts to defend their territory and to carve out a bit of space to make a home? At the same time, we find passages that express hope that peace will one day reign. Thus, God is both peacemaker and warrior.
David was a warrior king. He had made a name for himself on the battlefield, and this is what the people of Israel desired. They wanted a king who would fight their battles. Saul had been the first choice, but he didn’t bring the peace that was hoped for and he died in battle. Now, Israel would turn to David, hoping that by uniting with Judah they could find that desired space of peace and prosperity. The word we hear in 2 Samuel is this: “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, God of hosts, was with him.”
If Jesus is the Son of David, in what way is this true? Some Christian interpreters are embarrassed by the depiction of Yahweh as a warrior and have followed Marcion by distancing Jesus from that God. Unfortunately for modern Marcionites, Jesus’ Bible was the Old Testament. What I’m reminded of here is that the Bible, both testaments, shouldn’t be read flatly. As we approach this story, we can acknowledge David’s gifts and calling, and that God was with him as the people of Israel found their bearings, without embracing the entirety of the story. With Jesus we can center our attention on those passages that speak of peace and justice. It is also important to remember that while Jesus may have redefined what it means to be the son of David, he doesn’t reject the title.
Perhaps the word we should take from this reading is that David’s greatness comes because God is with him. It as God's anointed that he is Israel's shepherd. It is not due to any special qualities on his part, except that David tried to follow God’s paths. Of course, David didn’t perfectly follow them. If we follow David’s story we discover his many imperfections. Then again, David is, like us, a human being. At the same time, God was with him. God is with us as well.